Cleveland, Ohio – Losing a job can be stressful for anyone, especially for a young newlywed.
For Papu Ruiz, this was the beginning of a career change he didn’t see coming.
Ruiz learned the basics of cooking from his grandmother as a child. Laid off his bodywork job, he wanted to contribute to the house while looking for a new job, so he would make dinner for his wife, Nydvia, every day and have it ready when she got home from work.
With limited abilities in the kitchen, he was soon on the phone with his mother.
“I got tired of making fried chicken every night, so I called my mom and asked for some recipes,” he explained. “From there, I taught myself.”
To celebrate National American Caribbean Heritage Month, we asked our readers to find the best Caribbean food in Northeast Ohio. Nominations quickly filled our inbox, with Rincon Criollo receiving a massive number of nods.
Ruiz found cooking very satisfying, and soon began selling his dishes from his home kitchen. It didn’t take long for friends and family to start encouraging him to open a restaurant. He and Nedvia did just that, capturing the Rincon Criollo at Gordon Square in 2006.
Rincon Criollo was one of the first companies to take root in the Gordon Square Arts District on Detroit Road before it grew into the West Side entertainment destination it has become.
Rincon – which translates to “corner” – is a small town in Puerto Rico – aptly named because it is located in the upper corner of the island. Criollo translates to “homemade”. “I call it the ‘Good Things Corner,'” Ruiz said with a laugh.
“We were there before the Gordon Square explosion,” Papo explained. “Everything that is now, it was not there. It was a kind of ghetto with all kinds of suspicious people on the street. When we started, not many families came. But little by little, they repaired the whole street and now everything is always open, The work is on the move.”
Today the family operates two sites – the original site in Gordon Square, and a second site across town on Denison Street
Ruiz was born in Puerto Rico and was brought to Cleveland as a child. Nydvia originated in northeastern Ohio.
Both grew up eating the traditional dishes of their family’s homeland—and are proud to share this delicious heritage with the growing Puerto Rican population of northeastern Ohio—which Papo says “come to find a taste of home”—or with Native Clevelanders looking for something a little different.
Each dish is prepared from a homemade spice mixture, which they sell in restaurants.
Many of the dishes are family recipes, while others are travel-tested dishes that he has adapted to his own cooking style. All ingredients are locally sourced.
Ruiz’s signature dish, Gibarito, is a steak sandwich, but instead of wrapping the meat in bread, it’s served between two slices of plantain.
Most dishes at Rincon Criollo are heavy on meat – pork, steak and beef – although there are plenty of seafood and vegetable-based items to satisfy those looking for a lighter fare. Adventurous people will want to eat stewed pig ears, which are served with rice – one of the restaurant’s best-selling dishes – or oyster and octopus salads.
Three years ago, the Ruiz family decided to expand when the owner of their favorite taco restaurant, in Denison, was looking to retire. Rincon Criollo Tech 2 was born.
“We decided to take it and completely change the concept of our other place,” Nydvia explained. “Initially we had a lot of complaints from the regulars at Gordon Square because it was so different, but that was the point. Instead of sitting in a restaurant with limited parking, here we have plenty of parking and cater to workers who have limited time to eat Lunch “.
More of a cafeteria-style restaurant with limited seating, customers have plenty of parking and can grab a quick lunch in a matter of minutes.
In addition to the food service, Rincon Criollo Take 2 has two private rooms available for events – one of which features a stage and with upcoming liquor license approval will feature a small bar. Additionally, Ruizes explores the idea of roasting whole pigs during the summer months at the Denison site; Plus add a drive-thru window in the near future.
Ready to expand again – Rincon Criollo is working with Dave’s supermarket at W65 to open a booth in the fall, which will be called Rincon Criollo Express. The kiosk will serve cold deli and regular sides, but will only serve one appetizer per day.
Papu Ruiz even hinted at the possibility of a food truck in the near future.
How do they reconcile all this? “I eat and I clean, he cooks,” Nedvia says. Their three children are also involved in the day-to-day operations of the family business – with the middle son, Ricardo, following in his father’s footsteps as a chef, while the eldest son, Evan, and daughter, Arya, are interested in working in front of the house with clients.